The Oncoming Voucher Brawl
With the recent submission of what is believed to be enough signatures to get the voucher issue onto our ballots, Utahns had better brace for a battle royale over the upholding or defeat of HB148. (As a side note, nice work guys. I disagree with what you're seeking, but that's a heck of a lot of hard work you had to do.) Even prior to the submission deadline for signed booklets, both pro- and anti-voucher advocates were pounding the editorial pages, airwaves and blogosphere to present their cases for and against HB148. In the famous words of Michael Buffer, "Let's get ready to rumble!"
I fear this issue is going to be nasty. I'm talking "2004 presidential election" nasty. I expect name-calling, scheming, lying, intimidation, accusations and all of the worst elements of a political conflict. The stakes are high: most polls show the sides of the issue in a dead heat with the pro-voucher segment gaining some momentum. It's critical for both sides to get as many people in their camp as possible and make sure they get to the voting booth on time. It's never the slam-dunk issues that prove divisive: it's the ones where it's anyone's game.
Through it all, there's been scheming and plotting of the worst kind from both sides. Passing HB174 as a separate bill with a referendum-proof majority was a great way to sneak the program under the radar and ensure its survival through a challenge. At the same time, making sure the mitigation funding and religious neutrality clauses were missing on the second bill was a clever way to set it up for future litigation. After all, the "separation of church and state" grounds are firmer if HB148 is swept out of the way with a referendum, weakening HB174 in the courts.
Stories also abound of how referendum signatures may have been improperly gathered. More than a few anecdotes relate that signature gatherers may not have been entirely forthcoming about what it is that people were signing. The use of all public schools for single-view political purposes also doesn't sit very well with me. The radio ads that aired in the last few weeks also left a bad taste in my mouth. While they purported to be for teachers experiencing union pressures to work on the referendum, they were little more than a thinly-disguised way to say "hey, unions are forcing teachers to participate against their will" without having to come out and say it or prove the accusations.
And all of this prior to turning in the petitions for a signature count on Monday. (Predictably, Utahns for Public Schools, the organization seeking the signatures, has interpreted a desire to vote on the issue as a desire to vote against vouchers. Shameful!)
One of the big lingering questions is when the issue will make it to the ballot. Governor Huntsman recently reversed his stance of holding a special election as soon as possible, citing cost concerns. That leaves it for either the primary election in February or the next general election in November of 2008. To get the issue on the primary ballot requires consent from the Legislature.
One concern with doing it on a primary election would be low voter turnout, not to mention who turns out. Many non-partisan or third-party voters won't appear at the polls, largely leaving it up to Democratic and Republican voters to decide the issue. Though the voucher issue crosses party lines, I could still see the edge leaning towards the voucher camp in this scenario given the significantly larger number of registered Republicans in the state. (This is all conjecture since I've not been able to find a poll showing voucher support broken down by party affiliation.) The Legislature may choose to push for this date to take advantage of this possible edge.
If the election is held during the November 2008 general election, that leaves a lot of time for both camps to rally the troops and engage in a bare-knuckled slugfest. By the end of it all, we'll be so sick of hearing about vouchers that we'll all want to move to North Dakota. (I kid, of course. Nobody wants to move to North Dakota.) It'll almost be as bad as the Romneymania currently gripping our state.
So once the final vote is cast, what then?
If HB148 is overturned, it's going to take a lawsuit to overturn HB174. The Attorney General's office released a legal opinion on the voucher program saying that HB174 would stand on its own without HB148. I have no doubt that the Legislature will dig in its heels on overturning HB174 and force the issue in front of a judge. From there, it's anyone's guess. A judge could say "well, the people *really* meant…" and overturn the bill in violation of the law. On the other hand, he could say "too bad, so sad" and uphold it based on the 2/3 majority votes. Then again, there's the possibility that the religious neutrality argument (no matter how ill-founded and wrong I think it is) could carry weight with that particular judge. In the courts, it's anyone's game.
If HB148 is upheld, I don't doubt that a lawsuit seeking to overturn it will be filed anyway. I wouldn't think this a smart move, however. At least a few prominent bloggers (like Rob at Utah Amicus) are eager to let the vote be the final say and that's that barring a change in the makeup of the legislature. I think he's definitely right in taking this stance. If the issue passes, going to the courts thereafter will look like sour grapes and turn people off to the anti-voucher arguments. It would no longer look like a desire to let the people speak but a desire to get what they want. It'd be a bad PR move, but someone is going to make it. Call it a hunch.
Personally, I'll be talking to people I know to let them know that I support the voucher program and why I do. I'm sure many of you will be doing the same (though some of you for the opposite argument). Let's all commit ourselves to try to avoid name-calling, avoid harsh invective and stay on-topic during this long discussion process. And for Pete's sake, don't burn out on it. There's at least 10 months before anything is going to happen.